For any lawyer, arguing the first case is crucial not only in creating first impressions in the fraternity, but also in generating an experience to remember for a lifetime. My senior lawyer had entrusted me with the opportunity to argue a case he had taken up as a young lawyer himself. Bhimji Chauhan, a bus conductor, had asked for compensation from the state-managed bus company for negligence that resulted in the loss of his leg. The case, from 1982, was waiting for the final hearing and the compensation sought was Rs 34,732. While researching the case, my mind kept wondering: How would he have survived all these years if he did not even get his compensation on time?
The day the case was listed, I waited all day, but the case did not come up. Nor did it, at the next hearing and a couple after that as well. It took almost two months before I had the chance to argue. The big day arrived. The lawyer from the bus company was fortunately present in court. After 10 minutes of presenting the arguments, the judge announced the decision in favour of Chauhan. I was ecstatic – I had won my very first argument! Chauhan would finally have his compensation.
I wanted to communicate the decision to Chauhan himself, but no telephone number was noted in the file. I wrote a letter on his address asking him to contact me urgently. A week later, I got a phone call from his son informing me that Bhimji Chauhan had died five years ago. “Maybe this was the destiny,” his son concluded. I was speechless. A person had died waiting for justice. Unfortunately, the judiciary clogged with millions of cases was unable to provide him the right to live with dignity in his lifetime; and I somehow felt extremely guilty for being part of such a system.
Statistics reveal that the backlog of cases in Indian courts will take 320 years to clear, and an average case takes at least 20-25 years to resolve. While the judiciary in India has always been proactive, its lethargy has been one of the reasons it is still tough to do business in India. There are thousands of Bhimji Chauhans living a fateful existence everyday -– waiting for justice and blaming their fates for the injustices the system tends to create. The rich with the right connections often find it easier. Is the institution -– created to facilitate equality –- widening the gap? Even the Chief Justice of India, on assuming his office, referred to how the poor are unable to afford astronomical legal fees charged by the lawyers.
India is standing at an important crossroads. Its enormous potential for growth is coupled with innumerable corruption scandals, internal conflicts and massive inequalities. While the citizens are rapidly losing faith in the legislative and executive, the judiciary is the only institution where their hopes lie. Sadly, these hopes and aspirations are falling prey to the unaccountable legal system entrenched with vested interests. Efficient and effective delivery of justice is fundamental not only for every human being, but also for creating a sustainable economy. There is need for urgent reforms.
The judiciary must be equipped with a strong infrastructure imbibing case-management techniques and imparting ongoing training to judges and lawyers. Awareness must be created about rights and responsibilities among citizens with an environment of fairness from the grassroots levels such that a citizen is not compelled to take recourse to the option of fighting a case.
Bhimji Chauhan’s case would indeed be an experience to remember for a lifetime. He died waiting for justice; but it is our duty to make sure such injustices never occur again. I find resonance with what Nehru had said on the eve of India’s Independence: “We have hard work ahead. There is no resting for any one of us till we redeem our pledge in full, till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be.”
Kanan Dhru is the Founder and Managing Director, Research Foundation for Governance in India